Distributed Grammar

Say you're reading a book. Say it's Moby Dick (why not make it a good one?). Where does meaning reside? Whence the meaning you experience with and from this whale of a book?

Surely, it comes from the words. But where do words get their meaning? After all, take them out of all context and they're just shapes on a page. Ah, but there is no such thing as "taken out of all context." Some context is always already present, making its present felt. There is no such thing as a vacuum; everything is inflected.

So many presences when we read — words, books, biographies, appetites, images of reading, associations of images of reading, the need to eat or pea or sleep, friends, your sense of yourself and all that that entails. So many forces and things come to bear as you, alone, read Moby Dick.

There's history, too. But history is itself multiple. There is the history of the word that brings it across time to sit on that page there and look back at you. Those travels across time and ink and minds are rich, fecund with nuance, connotations, denotations, permutations and such. And there's your history — of those words, of your various and diverse experiences, of reading, of what you believe it means to read. (For many of us, reading is an inherent good, a sign of a lively mind and refined spirit. These days, I'm not so sure of that. Books are just another technology and words just another set of stuff.)

There's the writer, as well, or what we sometimes call the author. Melville lived in a time and place, had certain associations with words and images and they traveled across time to his hand to his page to your eyes to your experience.

In this seemingly straightforward act of you reading a book, probably alone in your bedroom, there are so many forces at work coming together and not coming together but somehow creating a machine that produces meaning, understanding, sensations. Every moment is a conjuring, a séance of sorts.

Meaning is distributed across these various bodies. You, as the reader, don't invent the meaning. You inflect it, inevitably, but you don't invent it. Melville has a lot to say but, on the other hand, he has nothing to say as he's not there; in fact, he's dead. So let's say that rather than Melville, there is this arrangement of these words.

And that arrangement does a lot of work, with or without Melville. Subject-verb agreement; inflection of subjects and objects and indirect objects; adjectival and adverbial qualifications. The grammar of language, its written as well as unwritten rules of how words should go together, is a pronounced presence as you sit there in your room, seemingly alone, reading this book.

The event of meaning — all these diverse forces cohering into something you feel and think and, perhaps, articulate — is a conspiracy of forces both visible and invisible, both immediate (the need to pee!) and historical (the word "doom" bears its eschatological etymology).  And each party plays its role, to a greater or lesser degree. Which is to say, sometimes you — the reader — have to do a lot of work. Or maybe you don't have to but you want to. Sometimes, a word rings out so great it muffles most attempts to domesticate it — in which case, it's the word doing most of the work. Sometimes it's circumstance. Different things at different times in my life have different effects and affects, as if Melville and words and whole history of the novel, of language, of the world is put to work in the service of a dominant mood emerging from a set of particular circumstances. 

The responsibility of meaning — the grammar of the meaning event — is distributed. It doesn't exist in one place. It happens between lots of things. But this distribution is not equal. It is not a load split evenly among all parties. It is a distributing of duty, as well.

Charisma, for instance, has a way of determining meaning perhaps even despite the best intentions of those around. Such is charisma: it is that which seduces and coerces attraction. And what is meaning except a certain mode of attraction between words, bodies, desires, appetites, and concepts?

I saw a film a few years ago called Zero Dark Thirty about the USA's assassination of Osama bin Laden (oy! Now I know this blog is tagged by the NSA, some virtual spider crawling it looking for keywords, probably mining my unsavory browse history. But that is my point, if I have a point: there are so many forces at work determining the way this text goes). The oddest thing to me about this film is that its very meaning resides on a shared knowledge. That is to say, if you don't know about 9/11 and the presumed role of Mr. bin Laden (fuck! I feel like that rag, the NY Times), the film makes no sense. It doesn't tell you about the towers; it rests on a shared history for its semantic production. The distribution of grammatic duty lies in the shared history of the viewers. If you had never heard of 9/11 or this Osama character, the film would be insane. Which is to say, it would have the oddest of  meanings — for no apparent reason, an organized mafia/militia wants to kill one man hiding — which, I suppose, might make it more interesting. Or meaningless!

Now consider another film about 9/11, United 93, which I wrote about ages ago and is brilliant (the film but, well, my reading of it, too). The grammatic distribution in that film is quite different than it is in Zero Dark Thirty. In United 93, it doesn't matter if you already know the history of 9/11 (as if there were one history); in Zero Dark Thirty, the film is downright demented if you don't know and, finally, share its assumptions about what it is you know. It doesn't build its own argument about the event; it relies on common sense which, as someone I know recently tweeted, is an oxymoron. United 93, however, is about an event whose sense is distributed. No one ever quite knows what's happening; information spills across different screens and eyes and doesn't become the event we know it as for quite a while.

Think for a moment about images and captions — or, better, The New Yorker cartoons. Meaning is distributed between and among the image, words, and our shared assumptions and ideologies. Change the words and, well, the image changes dramatically. And yet the image can't just be pushed to mean this or that. The image has something to say. The meaning happens between them — and so much more.


dg said...

Distributed... I`m trying to write a play. I had my first experience with actors performing it a few months ago. My words--me alone with them for months--came from somewhere else when I heard them aloud. I had to lie flat on my back on the floor I was so disoriented.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Ha! That would be, uh, disconcerting — to say the least. Movies are a great example of the distribution of semantic duties; and plays, too, of course.

Asa Henderson said...

I had a Film History teacher who made us memorize several of the top credits of every movie we saw. The benefit of this inane practice was that it broke me out of the straitjacket of auteurism. The career of Bernard Hermann is just as important a through-line in the history of American cinema as that of Hitchcock or Scorsese. It is in the tensions and harmonies between all these creators, plus the technologies, economic structures, and cultural histories that formed their contexts, that a film emerges, and it is through all of these and more that it can be understood. (Though, as you say, we need not look away from the film to come to an understanding of it. But if we want to look away, there are lots of directions to look.)